Tuesday, June 16, 2009

How does this flat-earth video make you feel?

Here is an interesting video from Iraq TV, courtesy of Memri:

I am not posting this to mock Muslims who maintain this belief, because they believe the Koran describes a flat earth. Rather, I post this because it is easier to make judgments about beliefs when others hold them. No Gadol nowadays maintains a belief in a flat earth, as far as I know. But to some rationalists, they and many non-rationalists maintain beliefs that could be comparable. Thus, some chareidim believe in a geocentric model of the universe, such that it was an ongoing dispute in certain chareidi papers in the lead-up to the recent Birkat Hachamma, and such that one chareidi Gadol said that to agree with Copernicus was heresy. More standard fare consists of disputes about the age of the universe, or over evolution.

Of course, distinctions can be made, and perhaps they should be made. But who did you side with in that video? What did you think of the epistemology, and the fellow's assumption that all modern science not in accordance with the Koran is false and heresy? This is appeal to authority, rather than facts, somewhat like (though not precisely like) asserting that the only valid and non-heretical way to understand a gemara nowadays is not like the Rishonim and in accordance what seems correct to one's intellect and true, but in accordance with the chareidi Gedolim and chareidi rabbinic leadership. What would you feel like if you were that Muslim rationalist in the video? How do you think a Jewish rationalist feels when presented with a similar appeal to authority?

Forget about the validity of the arguments. I am not trying to convince here, but rather trying to garner empathy and understanding for the rationalist position.


Yosef Greenberg said...

The support (usually) only goes so far.

In many cases the question is not centered over undisputed fact such as (the lack of) a flat earth.

The question is when you have somewhat compelling, yet not overwhelming, evidence of something that contradicts our basic (or traditional) understanding of Chazal.

In that case, how fast are you going to say Chazal were wrong? The chareidi viewpoint goes that as long as it is not proven beyond (reasonable?) doubt, we're not jumping on the scientific bandwagon.

I think it was the Brisker Rav who said once, when confronted with a consensus of scientists agreeing on something, that it all might originate with a single theorist with the rest parroting after him/her.

It all boils down to; which side do you see as more authoritative is such a case, thus needing to bend the other one to make it fit. From the chareidi viewpoint, its seen as if the rationalist scramble to prove the scientists right every time they can contradict the traditional view without giving enough doubt to the scientific view. Its as if they aren't willing to try every different plausible explanation first. 'Rationalism' is the first choice.

They see that as (slightly) degrading Chazal. "What joy to prove that Chazal were wrong!"

There's the reason, IMHO, of the lack of understanding for rationalism. I can be used in rare cases, but it needn't become a movement.

In a side note: I just saw an ad on your site for scientology.org . An display ad, again.

joshwaxman said...

my point isn't the argument here. rather, it is the feeling a rationalist has when someone says "here are three possibilities for how to understand X; how can you justify not choosing option 3, given that this is what the modern-day chareidi leadership propounds."

but to address partly the issues you raise:
i understand the chareidi viewpoint, on an emotional level.

in terms of my own reaction to a conflict between science and Chazal, i will be extremely quick to assume it is a contradiction, and that well-established modern scientific discoveries are the authoritative one. not because i am eager to bend to science and rationalism, but because i believe that Chazal did precisely what they were supposed to do, which is to apply halachic principles to the metzius, where the metzius could be interpreted via contemporary science. this is what Rav Moshe Feinstein did in issuing pesak, what Rav Shlomo Zalman Aurbach did, what Rishonim did, what Geonim did, what Savoraim did. And it is what Tannaim and Amoraim did.

Even where Chazal accord with the conclusions of modern science, I would seek to explain their words in terms of the science of their times. This is not kowtowing to modern science because of denigrating Chazal. It is realizing the intellectual and scientific climate in which statements were made.

This is looking at Chazal, and looking at Rishonim etc., through the lens of history. It is not a matter of choosing sides. There is a trend of making this personal. You are choosing the kofrim over holy Chazal! You are siding with Slifkin over the Gedolim! No, it is a broad historical understanding of the climate in which statements were made.

It is related to making use of archeological evidence to understand gemaras. Chareidim are not such big fans of realia, but I am. And it is related to using Tobit to understand a gemara. I would use Aristotle or Galen to correctly understand a gemara, the same way. I am jumping to gun on a post, but the Gra seemed to feel the same way in terms of contemporary historical evidence. He expressed the desire for Josephus to be translated into Hebrew in order to shed light on the true intent of Chazal in the gemara and midrashim. This is getting as close as we can to original intent, rather than meanings that have accrued to it. To make every Chazal fit in with current scientific beliefs (as some attempt) is to reinvent Chazal. But to insist that Chazal's science, which they got from the Greeks, or developed themselves on the basis of the Greeks, is accurate in spite of modern conflicting evidence seems just another form of apologetics and refusal to think, because of fear of the consequences.

do i take joy in proving Chazal wrong? no. but i do take joy in understanding a source in its historical context.


joshwaxman said...

i would give a concrete example of this approach i take. someone tried to prove that Ibn Ezra knew beRuach hakodesh of dual circulation. In reality, Ibn Ezra was referring to pneuma. See here. It is wonderful to get the correct historical peshat in Ibn Ezra. And it is not a good thing to ascribe to him meanings that he never had.

thanks in terms of the ad. i don't really care about such ads, since everyone here should know Scientology is nonsense and stupidity. They believe in octopus aliens! who cares about their ad? where a sexually inappropriate ad appears, though, the "harm" is already done before any sort of click-through.


Yosef Greenberg said...

There is an intellectual side to the chareidi viewpoint as well.

Since most chareidim do ascribe a deeper, mystical meaning to the words of chazal, they won't jump to discredit chazals words. Since there can almost always be a deeper meaning.

I am coming from another angle from what I wrote above.

Now, many of these cannot be called apologist, since some of the deeper explainations did come before modern scientific discoveries.

Since they work from that background, the're surprised that your willing to disprove a ma'amar chazal when there is such a good pnemeius pshat from the Maharal.

When it comes to psak halachah, it is quite universal to generally follow modern science. The issue is with the notion that chazal were wrong.

I'm not saying you denigrating chazal. I'm just trying to show you the other perspective.

I find that the ones making it personal are the ones who find it hard to make a convincing aregument because the simply don't have one. So I tend to disregard them.

Are chareidim really agaist realia? The living Torah Museum in Boro Park is quite a busy place.

The Gra's desire to translate Josephus might come from the respect that Rashi accorded him in his peirush in regards to the churban.

Again, as I wrote before: Chareidim accord less respect to currently held scientific beliefs, if they are in contradiction to chazal, unless they are hard facts.

Do you call this stupidity?

With the chareidi understanding, historical context doesn't make much of a difference. Chazal were above their contemporary scientists. They had a deeper meaning that transcends generational concepts.

Regardless, don't take my arguments as the chareidi viewpoint.

Been there said...

How about R Kanievsky's view on teeth:


Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

>He expressed the desire for Josephus to be translated into Hebrew in order to shed light on the true intent of Chazal in the gemara and midrashim.

Not to mention that he displayed the critical insight that Yosippon was not a translation (or the Hebrew original) of Josephus.


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